CHICAGO — These are heady times for Sun Prairie’s Will Butcher.
On Saturday night, he’ll captain Denver in college hockey’s national championship game, looking to cap off a senior season driven by a brush with an NCAA title last year.
And on Friday, he received college hockey’s top individual honor when he was named the winner of the Hobey Baker Award in a ceremony at Navy Pier.
He’s the first Wisconsin-born player to win the award and the first defenseman since 2009, when Boston University’s Matt Gilroy won as a senior.
Butcher said he’s watched the Hobey ceremony on TV for the past decade, but this time — whether he liked it or not — all the fuss was about him.
He had his parents, siblings, girlfriend, both sets of grandparents, an aunt, a great-aunt and a number of family friends at Navy Pier’s grand ballroom to see him be chosen from among three finalists.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” he said. “My whole family’s here. I love them all to death. I think my dad’s still speechless over there. He’s still taking deep breaths, I think. Just to do it this close to home and everything that I’ve gone through in my career, it’s something special.”
Butcher grew up playing for the Madison Capitols youth program before leaving home in 2011 to join the USA Hockey National Team Development Program in Michigan.
He was an alternate captain at Denver last season when the Pioneers made the Frozen Four. They lost to eventual national champion North Dakota in the semifinals on a last-minute goal.
Butcher and the other Denver players and staff members have cited that loss as their motivation to see things through to the finish this season. They’re 32-7-4 and the NCAA tournament’s top seed heading into the final against No. 2 Minnesota-Duluth at the United Center.
“It’s been an amazing year we’ve had so far but we’re not done yet,” Butcher said. “We’ve got one more game tomorrow.”
Butcher had to navigate a busy day Friday to get there. He and fellow finalists Zach Aston-Reese of Northeastern and Mike Vecchione of Union had Hobey duties in the morning.
Butcher then had practice in the afternoon and arrived for the ceremony, where hundreds of fans stood in line to get autographs from the two teams set to play today.
“It’s a whirlwind right now,” Butcher said.
Butcher’s demeanor made it seem like he was prepared for it.
His father, Joe, said Will takes more after his mother, Julie, in that way.
“He’s really calm and collected,” Joe Butcher said. “He doesn’t get rattled easily. He lets stuff just roll down his back. He’s not a huge rah-rah guy. He’s more lead by example and just work hard in practice, work hard in games and let your actions speak louder than your words.”
Butcher’s work in games stood out this season, when he ranked second among defensemen nationally with 37 points in 42 games. He’s plus-27, tied for third-best among blueliners.
The Pioneers have the nation’s best defense, averaging only 1.81 goals allowed per game.
The Hobey went to Butcher, but he was practically trying to give it away to his Pioneers teammates.
“I’ll say it until I’m blue in the face: The teammates that I have are such amazing guys that I wouldn’t have been up there today without those guys and wouldn’t have been up for the accolades that I have been up for this year,” Butcher said.